Research foci 2023-26

In the winter of 2021/22, our research group was positively evaluated for a second funding phase and in April 2022 the main committee (Hauptausschuss) of the DFG granted a second funding period from 2023 until 2026. During this time, we will continue our work within the chosen temporal and spatial framework of the first millennium BC until today in Europe, the Mediterranean and South Asia. Also, we will further develop and apply our research programme. In other words, we will explore the mutual formation of religion and urbanity as a fruitful perspective for research in the history of religion and urban history and do so by means of a more precise terminology as well as a research methodology complemented by processual concepts.

The results from the first project phase (2018-2022) have underlined the need of going beyond urban religion. At the beginning of the second phase, it appears to be most promising to examine long-term processes of differentiation and (dis-)embedding of religion and urbanity in the respective contexts of their mutual formation. We aim to identify phases of reinforcement and institutionalisation of religion and urbanity at the level of practices, ideas and organisations (as collective actors) in a reciprocal relationship. During such phases, discourses of urbanity would be more explicit and distinguishable from concrete urban space and urbanisation, just as religions as social formations and systematised bodies of knowledge are distinguishable from concrete religious practices.

To this end, we have selected three focal areas of investigation and will establish three focus groups: Group formation and segmentation, mercantilisation, and boundary drawing.

A Group formation and fragmentation

The size and especially the population of cities typically result from the interaction of different groups (e.g. family groups or localities, synoikismos) and quickly lead to the formation of sub-units such as neighbourhoods, districts or wards. A wide range can be observed in the density of interaction, the attributed significance, formalisation as well as the administrative and political integration of such groups in relations of domination. Religious practices and semantics often play an important role in this, but have rarely been studied historically, and if so usually only with regard to processes of the agglomeration of religious minorities (often connected with processes of ethnogenesis) or exclusions (ghettoisation, repression). The same applies to the opposite process of fragmentation.

In contrast, less strongly charged segmentations, at times playing themselves out in territorial terms, e.g. in the form of internal walls or the subdivision into parishes (Christianity) or mosque communities, play only a minor role in research. Carrying on from the first project phase, when we enquired into the segregation of urban neighbourhoods, we want to take such territorial phenomena as our starting point in order to observe any strong moral and socio-economic connotations of belonging, status and value.

Where are religious semantics and practices used for non-hierarchical segmentation? Where are they pragmatically relevant or irrelevant for differentiation or even discrimination? Where do they intersectionally reinforce or conceal inequality? Where do they symbolically construct them? Where do they overwrite or translate inequalities of origin, access to infrastructures or opportunities for participation?

Local studies of community structures in South Asia or parish systems in Europe lead us to questions about the presupposed or thus formulated norms of urban coexistence and the spatial form thus created. In South Asia, for example, the spatial organisation of the city reflects the social caste system and the need for solidarity among its inhabitants: urban space is segmented into micro-districts and micro-areas in which the inhabitants pursue common religious, ethnic and/or professional interests. Perceptions and uses of such urban segments can be analysed here, as well as elements of co-spatiality, i.e. the switches, interfaces or emboîtements they contain.

B Mercantilisations

In the second research field, the research interest concentrates on the interaction of religion and urbanity in relation to and under the influence of commerce/trade. However, for us this less a matter of the “economic ethics of world religions” (Weber) or religious economics or urban economic history (Jacobs, Sassen). Rather, this methodological reflection of a trilateral analysis (religion – urbanity – trade) makes it possible to specify our hypothesis that urbanity and religion mutually influence each other. We emphasise the interweaving of religious with many other practices as well as the many forms urbanity takes in the interaction of various actors. By mercantilisation we refer to both the expansion of economic exchange relations and contrary developments. They are not only of central importance in urban history; the urbanity-producing effects of the confrontation between religion and trade have already emerged in some case studies during the first project phase.

Interactions between religion and trade are often already evident during the proto-urban growth of trading places and in the founding phases of cities, when cities are granted rights to hold markets or fairs. These interactions quickly impact urban (infa-)structures. In such spatialisation processes, the placement of church, mosque, temple or synagogue in relation to marketplace, funduk or bazaar seems to follow conscious considerations or even strategies, especially visible in moments of relocation. Temples or churches prove to be carriers of market infrastructures and integrate into everyday urban and extra-urban routes of use. Water infrastructures (wells, dams, lakes, rivers and their harbours) can also become places of religious practice beyond their transport and communication function. Multiple uses of these places (markets that take place in churches or on temple forecourts) are equally salient (see co-spatiality).

However, interactions between economic and religious practices play themselves out also in relationships of competition and cooperation: in the timing of market days in relation to ritual dates; in the handling of trade and credit transactions by religious groups that were allowed to do so; in the role of religious institutions as producers or customers of goods for liturgical use (wax, incense, wine, wheat, relics, votives, amulets, talismans, idols, coconuts) or organisational purposes (pilgrimage operations or synods). This also applies to aspects such as trust and moral integrity (moral probity) in the practices of trade, often derived from the religious.

The intertwining of religious and economic practices described above is also evident in the rhythms of everyday life. Spatial proximities often facilitate this, e.g. when forum and temple, bazaar and mosque, marketplace and church are located close to each other. Users of urban spaces make a conscious choice or follow routines to go to places where they engage in religious or economic activity, one after the other or at the same time. Again and again, it becomes clear that places that are not primarily exclusively intended for religious practice tend not to be used for religious practice.

The focus on trade also allows us to identify overlaps with aspects of urban-rural relations and discursive as well as action-based demarcations of urbanity: Movements of goods, people, religious practices and ideas into and out of physical boundaries of individual cities have often been narratively traced. Thus, urbanity is also characterised by the aspect of inter-urban exchange and the integration of urban and religious actors into networks that extend beyond the respective city (monasteries, supply of raw materials). As in the other fields, crises and profound changes have produced sources relevant to our undertaking.

C Drawing boundaries

Urbanity is negotiated spatially and temporally just as much in the historical actors’ questioning of the local specifics of the urban as in the constitution and discussion of boundaries. Spatial symbols are highly important for the perception of the urban (outer city walls, other visibly marked boundaries). However, frequently their do not determine the pragmatics and problems of drawing boundaries on the ground. The same is the case for religion. In addition, the issues of boundaries becomes especially acute – and is articulated as such – during temporary, sometimes even recurring or even definitive breakdowns of urban order. They are also represented in regulations that seek to counter such breakdowns by disrupting urbanity – for example, by restricting basic rights. These can be ritual, literary or legal imaginings and fictions as well as real crisis situations and ruptures of urban coexistence for individuals, groups or the entire urban society, which otherwise support this very coexistence, this urbanity.

The rupture caused by the death of individual members of urban society is fundamental. Separate burial areas (including cremations) can often be found outside certain symbolic markers of urban space, but often in close connection with it. Building on the results from the first phase, we propose to examine regulations and historical interpretations of such regulations in different urbanisation regions as negotiations of the border area of belonging and the (at least temporarily) remaining urbanity of the deceased. Here, the emphasis on belonging can appear alongside the rigorous demarcation from the urban association. At the same time, “cemeteries” in their spatial order as well as their governance make important statements about the valence of group memberships or individual qualifications (while alive). (Remaining) urban relationships are thus also spatially mapped and religiously reinforced or counteracted. Manifold conflicts mark this area in particular.

Unexpectedly, but often recurrently, urban coexistence is interrupted by conflicts involving violence and destruction – through human or “natural” intervention. Here, too, religious and urban occasions, strategies, justifications and critique occur in diverse constellations and interactions. We will examine also the role of religious and urban actors in renegotiating urbanity or trusting in the urbanity of a “disrupted city” as well as their strategies of disambiguation in the aftermath of crises. We include pandemics and other “natural disasters” as special forms of violence.

Excluding entire groups of actors from specific or even all urban contexts can also be part of everyday life – all the more so when marginalised people (including the dead), members of the lower classes or the “poor” are involved. This in turn can lead to perceptions and actions on both sides in urban and religious semantics and strategies, especially when such ‘excluded’ groups make up the majority of the urban population (from ancient cities in contemporary Christian sermons to interviews with slum dwellers in Mumbai). In this context, it is also important to think of “strangers” as a whole spectrum of social “others” – from merchants and other valued experts to “economic refugees”.

An important strand of urbanity discourses is determined by the self-differentiation from a spatial Other (often underdetermined or constituted by prejudice), the non-urban. Beyond the collection of motifs on the rural-urban distinction that has already been undertaken many times, we want to ask precisely how such demarcations detach themselves from the concrete spatiality and the spatial position of the speakers.

We offer to publish contributions on the open access database Religion and Urbanity Online. In order to strengthen comparative and entangled perspectives, we seek to foster projects of co-authorship in addition to welcoming individual contributions.

Cite this blog post
urbrel (2022, October 10). Research foci 2023-26. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from

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